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 Chapter 8

Le Grand Nord

We have so far been concerned with solitary enterprises, very largely because you'll have trouble persuading anyone else to do these things with you. We'll now extend our scope a little and take a child to Moosenee.

Why a child? You can get them to do things that an adult wouldn't do. They also meet people and make friends in interesting ways.

Moosenee is near the mouth of the Moose river, which flows into James Bay, which is part of Hudson's Bay, which is part of the Arctic Ocean. There used to be no road to Moosenee (although they may since have built one in connection with hydro-electric projects), but there is a train, the "Polar Bear Express." The name is a misnomer since Moosenee is only a gateway to the true North, and isn't itself far enough north to have polar bears. On the other hand, when I took my eleven year-old daughter there, she quickly found out from the resident children that we had arrived in the only month, August, in which life is supportable.

Needless to say, the winter involves intense cold and wind. The ocean is always a moderating influence, but the Arctic, cold and shallow, isn't exactly the Mediterranean. The earlier settlers lived in log cabins, and they spent winters, when they could hardly venture out, chipping ice on the inside walls of their folksy but miserable dwellings. The dwellings are still folksy, and perhaps not as good.

Spring comes late, but isn't really an occasion for great rejoicing. The land is low-lying and flat, not much above the high-tide mark, and there are prodigious floods which wash away a good deal and coat almost everything that remains with layers of mud. It also brings hordes of extremely unpleasant insects. These are, indeed, quite intense even in the good month of August. There are then various other natural disasters which round out the year.

There aren't many eskimos in Moosenee, but a great many Indians of the Cree and other tribes. Things have mostly not gone very well for them, and a surprising number of the young men were walking around with their arms in casts and slings. This, my daughter was informed, was becuase they fight in the bars. There may have been more to it than that. Men don't ordinarily have their forearms broken in bar-room fights in the United States, but special techniques may be employed in Moosenee. It may even be that the loser is required to place his arm across the arms of a chair and have it broken. In any case, the young men with the broken arms swaggered in such a way as to suggest some signal accomplishment.

The worst word in the Cree language, I found from the same source, sounds rather like "Kigishbinum." The tourist who wishes to get to the bottom of this mystery might go into one of the local bars and direct this word at the gentlemen there assembled.

The Moose estuary is broad, and has a deep channel in which whales are sometimes seen. The tidal flow is vigorous, and must be crossed to reach the island opposite the town on which the campground is located. There's some sort of ferry service, but one avoids such things whenever possible.

The people on the train are rather informal, and they might well be persuaded to take a kayak, or perhaps even a rowboat, in one of the baggage cars. But the Moose estuary is badly suited to even these versatile craft. Apart from the deep channel, there are large areas of sand, partly submerged and partly exposed at most tides. The water boils around and among these dunes, but there is seldom enough depth to get a good bite with either oar or paddle. A kayak would have to be carried hundreds of yards over bad footing while the carrier, his hands full of kayak, would be unable to swat at the marauding insects. A rowboat would have to be dragged, probably to the amusement of various louts in as many stages of inebriation who watch all such endeavors from the shore.

A rubber boat, with its flexible bottom, can be bounced and jounced over the little sand hillocks, particularly if one happens to want to go the way the water goes. But, a good deal of the time, it's necessary to go across or against the current. This is where the child comes in.

She should be seated in the stern, facing aft, with her legs over the boat trailing in the water and her arms braced. When you get stuck, she simply pushes with her feet until you're free. There's a good chance that she may be left standing on the sandbar, but you'll soon get stuck again. She can then wade through the shallows to rejoin you.

The child is likely to complain about this sort of thing, but it can be pointed out to her that there isn't any real alternative, and that, anyhow, the whole experience is tremendously educational.

Perhaps because of the tide and the sandbars, themselves probably created by the floods, there's surprisingly little navigation on the Moose estuary. But one can time the tide and row down to the open sea. There's the wreck of an old ship along the way. One does wonder how, in protected waters, they managed to lose the ship. It may be that the intrepid mariners, having gotten their craft aground most awkwardly, were driven away by the mosquitos, black flies, and other pests before they could get her off.

One of the ways to avoid being bitten, at least over most of one's body, is to pop overboard for a swim. The water isn't as cold as that in Iceland, and the child in the boat can row alongside until it's time to trade places. The thing not to do is to wade out of the water at the edge of the river. There are things which look like (and may be) giant black house-flies which live in the mud at the bank. They seem to be attracted to wet skin, and will quickly cover the entire body, taking little, but rather painful, nips as they do so. You don't have to be told to get back into the water and wave to the child for rescue. When that has been effected and you're a hundred yards off shore, you can crawl into the boat free of this particular scourge.

It's better to go down to James Bay on an ebb tide and come back on the flood without attempting to land and pitch a tent. In most places the forest comes close to the water, and the pines, firs, and birches grow together so tightly that it would be a major, and extremely unpleasant, enterprise to clear enough space for the bottom of a tent.

If one meets any persons at all on the lower Moose, those persons are likely to be rather interesting. We came upon a fortyish Englishman in a large canoe with six teen- agers. He was disposed to conversation and remarked,

"I'm trying to arrange transport to the Foxe Basin. I want them to see where I spent eight years."

The Foxe Basin is a long way north, above Hudson's Bay and well above the latitude of Cape Farewell, the southern tip of Greenland. It was hard to imagine why, or even how, anyone could have managed to spend eight years there, but one didn't like to appear unduly curious. The passengers seemed enthusiastic about the prospect, although they could hardly have made it in their canoe.

It appeared that, all about sixteen, they came from quite different backgrounds. One was obviously an Eskimo, and one or two others were at least partly Indian. One was a young man who sounded as if he had come directly from Eton or Harrow, and one, very sophisticated, young lady was an American black.

The Englishman said that he was also trying to "arrange transport" to the Great Slave Lake, but then broke into French to speak ironically of the "Great North." It turned out that it had always been a standing joke among the French traders and trappers that any arrangements made by men in northern latitudes would be frustrated, either by the reliably hostile forces of nature or by the unreliability of other men. He flapped his arms at that, and then set about preparing lunch on a little stove he balanced precariously on the gunwale of the canoe. As we rowed off, we decided that the teen-agers were all the man's children. It must have been either just before or just after his time in the Foxe Basin that he had been possessed of a powerful sexual energy and an admirable lack of discrimination.

It's always pleasant to row with a strong current sweeping you along, and, if you come close to the forested bank, you get an extra sensation of speed. It's also, despite the great difference in latitude and climate, rather like the coasts of Borneo and the Celebes in Conrad's writing. This northern jungle is just as hard to penetrate, and people are just as scarce. It may contain any number of mysteries, and, for all one knows, a modern-day Kurtz may be pursuing his unspeakable practices with some obscure tribe behind the wall of forest. Then, too, the Arctic Ocean, with its surrounding bays and estuaries, constitutes, like the Java Sea and its neighbors, a great expanse of shallows. Any such sea is capricious, with wind and currents producing odd wave formations. A sudden gale may convince you that it is actually possible to drown in water hardly over your head.

Right at the mouth of the Moose there's another odd northern phenomenon, a settlement of teepees. Most Cree Indians now live in houses, sometimes only shacks, and have outboard motors on their canoes. But we found a middle-aged Catholic nun who was trying to re-introduce the Cree children to their own culture. Part Cree and part French, she was also descended from a Norwegian whaling captain whom she seemed to most closely resemble. She was, in her own way, what amounted to a social worker. It went without saying that the object was, not only to keep alive a culture in danger of being lost, but to keep modern corruption and degradation at bay. In a cleared area facing that obscure sea which had decided, for better or worse, the fates of most of their ancestors, the children chased each other happily and played games. The nun was extremely generous with her food, and we departed the better for having met her.

Offshore, there was a tug and large steel barge which turned out to belong to the Hudson's Bay Company of 17th century fame. Amazingly enough, the company still exists. Indeed, it has sufficiently outlived Henry Hudson to run the nearest thing to a supermarket in Moosenee. Its barges, like the one we saw hull down and headed north, are towed up the shores of the bay to various isolated settlements. One imagines these people existing on whiskey and grubs for the best part of the year, and then breaking into wild jubilation when the company's barge appears.

The trip back up amounted to a feast with camp-baked bread and buns from the nun, pop-tarts from Battle Creek, and bits of freeze-dried food. This last, for those who haven't tried it, is rather comical. A grayish-looking powder, when mixed with water, will suddenly take shape as a hamburger or pear. Some of the more elaborate dishes involve more than one packet, and, when we mixed according to directions, we were confronted with an almost miraculous beef strogonoff.

Nearer to Moosenee, there was a fluttering and whirring noise. Looking up, we saw a seaplane glide over us and splash into the water some fifty yards ahead. This seemed to be the way in which people actually make their way around the north. There are always lakes and rivers for landing, and, in winter, skis replace the pontoons. When our Englishman talked of arranging transport, this was probably part of what he had in mind.

As a culmination to an experience of mixed cultures, we found that the establishment which was most clearly a restaurant, as opposed to a bar, was Chinese. The owner was, indeed, more or less Chinese. There were some people in the kitchen, slinging pots and cursing one another, who might have been Hawaiian or Phillipino, or perhaps Mexican. The waitress, evidently of English Canadian descent, was extraordinarily beautiful. It was odd that such beauty had not somehow transported her out of the north, with all its privations, to something rather more comfortable.

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